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Taking Project Document Management Beyond Paper Pushing

Managing a project can require up to 50 different types of documents for planning, tracking and reporting.  Feasibility studies, resource spreadsheets, financial and project plans, supplier contracts, post-implementation reviews, change request forms and project status reports are essential ingredients in successful project management. They are the components of “project documents,” which are the definitive record of a project that details the project cycle from inception to conclusion.

Most project managers would agree that the project document plays a central role in strategically developing the best possible plan, communicating progress and status to all stakeholders. The type of project documents you produce, their formatting and organization are a big part of what makes your organization able to move through the project lifecycle, which consists of:

  1. Definition or Conception – Defining the charter and the details surrounding the project’s objectives are key drivers in building the project’s road to success. The charter document is the heart of project initiation.
  2. Planning – Detailing the project’s overall scope, resource scheduling, client agreements and risk management details.
  3. Execution – Tracking, acting and reacting. Here the project documents are delivering the actuals and updates to the project plan. Cost, time, physical progress and emerging issues are documented in this phase.
  4. Closure – Closure documents detail outstanding issues and/or deliverables, project outcome reviews and best practices for future use.

Documents have a role in each of these phases, helping to keep the project cycle moving fluidly. At the same time, however, documents need managing themselves or they take over the process they’re supposed to facilitate. As they shepherd projects through these phases, managers can easily fall into the trap of producing piles of documents that cloud their vision with redundant information and contribute to a project’s failure. Using a project document incorrectly can minimize a project managers’ strategic value. Poorly managed documents can conceal a project’s true status, create confusion and frustrate those who want answers and those who need to deliver. Sound project document management determines whether information flows effectively through project teams and stakeholders or turns into bottlenecks that cause projects to exceed their time line, budget or scope.

The sheer volume of information contained in project documents and the need to share it among all stakeholders are the primary reasons that project documents can turn into useless paperwork. Although collecting project information is essential, many project managers have trouble focusing on the most relevant information contained in project documents and using it to unclog bottlenecks and update stakeholders. Poorly managed project documents produce the following symptoms:

  • Lack of visibility –Managers and stakeholders have an unclear picture of project statuses and related work. Project documents do not exchange information, creating redundancies that cloud the picture.
  • Weak security – Poor security measures, inadequate business rules and workflows often direct critical project information to the wrong people and impede progress toward goals. 
  • Loss of data – Many project management organizations do not store their project documentation in a single repository. The information in these documents can be lost or so difficult to access it might as well be lost. Lack of data integrity means inaccurate information could end up in decision-making reports.
  • Limited collaboration – Project documents (e.g. spreadsheets) are often managed as unstructured data sitting in emails, on desktops and in paper format. More often than not, project documents are not easily shared among project stakeholders that may need to access information from multiple locations.

Identifying the document management issues specific to your organization is an important first step in eliminating this document management mayhem. The next step is to adopt a best practices approach developed by outstanding project managers. The basic quality that sets great project managers apart from good project managers is the ability to minimize time spent producing documents and maximizing their more important strategic role of managing people. Re-using documents and applying document management methods commonly used in other areas of business are the strategies common to most great project managers.

Re-using project plans, complex business case documents, standard contracts, specification sheets and project status reports helps managers focus on managing the project without getting bogged down in paperwork. Great project managers are excellent at “templatizing” their project documents to make creating them fast and accurate. Eliminating redundant document re-creation by building templates reduces opportunities for errors from repetitive processes such as transcribing, cutting and pasting information.

Document management technology and methods have been evolving steadily almost since documents were first committed to electronic form in the mainframe era. Document management encompasses procedures such as information storage and archiving, integrity and portability – the very qualities essential to productive project management. Here are some of the best practice elements found in the document management world that can be applied to project management practitioners:

  • Document capture – all electronic and paper documents should be in a central repository for easy retrieval.
  • Version control – check-in and check-out options and tiered security, such as read and write access, ensures data integrity.
  • Workflows – the ability to design and apply configurable workflows that map to the business processes.
  • Reporting and analysis – the ability to exchange information between documents for reporting and analysis purposes to provide better visibility across the organization.
  • Collaboration – the ability to share documents among relevant stakeholders, as well as restrict the documents to those who should not have access.

In an ideal world, project managers would be able to capture the finest of details in their project documents and have the ability to retrieve relevant information on demand when they need to make well-informed decisions. That ideal world of agile, informative documents isn’t fictional. It already exists in the corporate world; it has just existed outside the traditional scope of project management. Adapting the sound document management processes that have made legal, financial, compliance and production more efficient will make project management a strategic advantage for innovative companies in any industry.

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Neil Stolovitsky has 10 years of IT experience with end-user, consulting, and vendor organizations, along with extensive expertise in business development, software selection, and channel strategies. Neil is a senior solution specialist with Genius Inside.

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